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- Science of Happiness
At some point, in your efforts to improve your circumstances, you’ve probably turned to the experts for advice. You might have looked to science for guidance on what to eat for weight loss or what psychology says will make you happiest. And chances are, you’re also confused.
One big problem with psychological research is what happens in the lab often stays in the lab. Not only is it nearly impossible to control all the variables, but sometimes the very act of measuring human behavior influences the outcome.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the scientific studies being performed. And it doesn’t mean that contradictory studies are both wrong. But it’s a good reminder that observation isn’t limited to men and women in white coats.
You can’t catch me (nanny nanny boo boo)
Maybe you too scratched your head when you saw the studies from Princeton claiming money directly correlates with happiness up to a certain salary level, at which point the effect levels off.
There is a distinction: up to $75,000 a year, your happiness, or day-to-day emotional state, increases. But life satisfaction continues to climb with salary, regardless of the absolute value of your earnings. So if you make $25,000 a year and get a 10% raise, you’ll rate your life satisfaction higher, even though you’re nowhere near that $75,000 bar.
In fact, and here’s the kicker, what really seems to matter is how much you make compared to everyone else. So if your neighbors all invested their life savings with Bernie Madoff, but you put your money in Apple stock, your life satisfaction would theoretically be through the roof.
What this study really is saying is that happiness stems from feeling superior to those around you. How screwed up is that?
The need to catch your breath
Going through the career design process, I spent a lot of time analyzing my desire for money. There’s no doubt I harbored issues of basing my self-worth, at least to some degree, on the value of my income generation. But I don’t think that’s the primary reason most people, myself included, think more money will make them happier. It has to do with options.
Imagine someone gave you a million dollars. Now you could take more vacations, longer vacations, exotic vacations even. You could own a vacation house. You could work some lousy paying job you love. You could stop working all together (but maybe not if you’re also taking long, exotic vacations).
What’s really tantalizing about money is that your life theoretically has a lot more options than it did before. The problem is scientific studies have also shown that while some choice is good, for most of us, having an abundance of options is nothing short of hell.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is opportunity cost–when you have to select one option of many, you are simultaneously not selecting all the other options, which your brain views as a loss. Daniel Kanheman, that same Princeton researcher who put a price on happiness, discovered we attach more psychological significance to losses (in this case, the opportunity costs) than the joy we get from what was gained.
Abundance brings other problems as well. A fascinating study performed in 1999 by CBS and The New York Times polled 1038 kids between the ages of 13 and 17 on whether their life was easier or harder than their parents.
Overall, 43 percent said they were having a harder time, 33 percent said they were having an easier time and 23 percent said it was about the same. [...] affluent teenagers, whatever their race or gender, were substantially more likely than those from more modest homes to report that their lives were harder and subject to more stress.
When asked to be more specific, affluent teenagers “attributed it to a sense of too-muchness: too many activities, too many consumer choices, too much to learn.” We want more money so we can have more options, but it’s really easy for those options to morph into “too muchness.”
How did I get in this race, anyway?
Maybe you’ve heard the story about Chicago law professor Todd Henderson, who makes over $250,000 a year but still doesn’t feel rich. He said he felt like he and his family were “just getting by.”
Studies have shown “as wealth in the U.S. has increased, Americans have increased the number of hours they work; and happiness levels have remained basically unchanged. By contrast, Europeans have responded to economic gains by working less — and they’re happier as a result.”
Henderson thought he could buy himself time by hiring gardeners, nannies and maids. But those costs just meant he had to keep pulling in his salary, which likely meant he didn’t get a time savings at all, he just spent it at his office instead of cleaning his toilet. As Laura Rowley put it, “a luxury [was] transformed into a necessity.”
Don’t think for a minute Henderson is alone. Most of us make this mistake, just with smaller fortunes. The point is: unless you’re very deliberate about how you handle wealth, more money likely won’t improve your life.
Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons. –Woody Allen
When you boil it all down, there’s only one way money is going to make you happier: if by earning more, you work less.
Previous generations interpreted that as earning and saving during your youth so that you can safely retire in your elder years. That strategy only works if you’re comfortable being really satisfied with life, ummm, later. Tim Ferriss and other devotees to lifestyle design define it as earning money by doing what you enjoy (and therefore not calling it work)–a definition I can live with.
In order to turn either into reality, there are a few things you’ll have to do first:
- One of the best things you can buy with money is peace of mind by creating a safety net of funds. The question is: how big a reserve do you need? I got trapped into thinking I had to work high paying jobs so I could maintain my current rate of saving, even though I’d already built up several years worth of salary. Resources for responsibly reducing your debt and building a safety net are Adam Baker’s ManvsDebt and Jamie Tardy’s Eventual Millionaire.
- To avoid the Todd Henderson trap, you have to prioritize your needs. Focus on what really makes you happy, not what makes you look successful. I realized two things made up the bulk of my happiness: food and family (yes, I’m counting my cats as family). I made sure I had “non-negotiables” in my career design process focused on those elements.
- The last step? Measure what you want to improve. If you prioritized travel in step two, keep track of how many trips or vacations you take each year. For me, I wanted stress-free family time. Every time I get irritated when my daughter stops to pick up an acorn on the way to school, I give myself a black mark. It’s a powerful tool–use it wisely.
But my best advice? Experiment. If you don’t want an ordinary life, why design yours according to the actions of average people?
Photo courtesy of Mike Baird on Flikr. Huge thanks to readers Laura Burger and Kevin Gluck for sending me the articles that inspired this post.
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